I have a love/hate relationship with the ocean and open water. I have always loved swimming but also have a deep respect for the ocean, it’s currents and how powerful/dangerous it can be. I have always felt at home swimming up and down the lanes at a leisure centre but struggled with open water swimming. I think it is the element of the unknown, the thought of bad visibility and not knowing what is around me in the water that causes panic to rise.
I’m not one to shy away from my fears and when I started to learn about triathlon, I realised I would definitely have to tackle open water swimming.
I first signed up to an event called Big Sea Swim in Cornwall with my sister in August 2014. My sister wanted something to train towards after having her firstborn and we decided to tackle it together. I managed the swim mostly by focusing on the people around me and my sister next to me. After emerging into the open ocean and out of the shelter of Port Gaverne, the waves were big and there were jellyfish. A big one swam right past my face but I wasn’t stung and I soldiered on to the finish line and didn’t give in to panic.
Since then, I signed up for more and realised that race day and a fellow crowd of swimmers alongside me, helped me push down the fear. I completed Castle to Castle swim across a very deep harbour in Falmouth as a 60th birthday celebration with my dad and sister. I also swam off Gylly beach in Falmouth, after the original Castle to Castle route was deemed too choppy and unsafe that year. I swam in the ocean competitively again, during Falmouth sprint triathlon (and came 2nd). During races, I seemed to be able to keep my panic under control as I had the finish line as my focus and fellow swimmers to distract me from thinking about what was underneath.
I lived in Australia for a while (even more sharks, jellyfish and other unknowns in the water) but was determined to keep tackling open water. I signed up for the Round the Island Sea Swim in Coogee. My family actually begged me not to do it as they feared the shark infested waters but I reassured then that I would be OK. I was OK, but only just! Minutes after I completed the race and left the water, a huge bloom of bluebottle jellyfish annihilated the rest of the swimmers behind me. The paramedics and lifeguards had a busy afternoon tending to hundreds of jellyfish stings. (Now see why the pool is preferred?!)
My next step was to learn to dive. My theory was that learning to enjoy being under the water would help me on top of the water. I ended up falling in love with diving and have now nearly 100 dives under my belt (including dives in Fiji with 20+ bull sharks around). My love of the ocean grew but also the fear. I had one potential near death experience where my fins flew off in a strong current and I lost my dive group. It’s a very dangerous sport but exhilarating all the same.
I also started competing in 70.3 Ironmans over the years and had to swim open water for each of these. I swam in a glacier lake with other competitors trying to rugby tackle me underwater (especially trying to get the quickest route around the buoys). I swam in extremely rough surf conditions in Vietnam where moments before the race they were still seriously considering cancelling the swim section of the race. I was also stung on the arm by a huge jellyfish in Vietnam during the same race. I swam in Bintan where the currents were so strong that many competitors were swept away, had to be rescued and DNF.
Through all these experiences, I continue to try. Most recently, I have been swimming daily in the lakes of the Lake District. There are no bull sharks or box jellyfish here. There is nothing here that can kill me. And yet….the panic is still there. The first couple of swims, my heart rate was through the roof. The visibility is low and the plant life can hit you in the face if you swim too shallow but the darkness of going deeper is equally terrifying. Here I am just training with Richard. There is no race to distract me or numbers of swimmers to focus on. It is just me, my thoughts and the water. On my second swim, I had a big panic and was very grateful for the purchase of a swim buoy to float on in the middle of the lake. Rich tried to calm me down but I felt my emotion was out of control. Fear is a mind game and I gave myself a talking to. Every fibre of my being wanted to get out of the water immediately but I knew that if I did, it would be so much harder to get back in. I kept swimming and managed to finish 2km but it took every inch of my will power to do it.
We kept returning to the lake and it started to get easier. I listened to music on my underwater mp3 player to distract me and stuck to routes where I became familiar with the stony bottom of the lake. I felt I was starting to get my fear under control enough to train. After at least 10 swims in the lake, I had another panic, for no reason fathomable except an unexpected plant hit me in the face. I just couldn’t do it. It was so frustrating because I thought I had been making progress and here I was nearly crying over a plant. How was I able to confidently dive surrounded by sharks at 30 metres yet I couldn’t swim in 2 metre deep water here?
I think I have accepted that open water swimming is never going to come naturally to me. It might always stir up panic but I need to learn strategies to keep it under control. Race days don’t seem to phase me as I am too focused on the end goal. Training days I need to find the mental strength to get through. I figure it is just a case of continuing to get in the water and never giving up. As a primary school teacher, I am always teaching little ones the importance of perseverance and resilience. So I guess I just keep practising what I preach….and get in that water!